Human exceptionalism was once considered a self-evident truth. No longer. For years, advocates for radical animal-rights agendas have sought to undermine the view of man as a species set apart.
This isn’t really news. But some may be surprised to hear that many who work within the life sciences also hope to knock us off our pedestal. For example, the noted primatologist Frans de Waal revealed his position in a New York Times opinion column attacking human exceptionalism: “In our haste to argue that animals are not people, we have forgotten that people are animals, too.”
In a biological sense, that is absolutely true. But the most important distinction between animals and humans is a moral delineation. That is the distinction that human unexceptionalists (if you will) seek to erase.
The piece by de Waal epitomizes the genre. Because we and animals share certain biological traits—for example, neurotransmitters in the brain—de Waal praises scientists for their skepticism of any difference between us and the beasts of the field (as they used to be called). From his article “What I Learned by Tickling Apes”:
Brains are in fact so similar across the board that we study fear in the rat’s amygdala to treat human phobias. This doesn’t mean that the planning by an orangutan is of the same order as me announcing an exam in class and my students preparing for it, but deep down there is continuity between both processes. This applies even more to emotional traits.
This is why science nowadays often starts from the opposite end, assuming continuity between humans and animals, while shifting the burden of proof to those who insist on differences.
Notice the neat sophist’s trick. De Waal begins with a discussion of proper and strictly biological investigations—which is a primary reason for our conducting animal research. Much of the rest of the piece then conflates biological with moral continuity, which are two different things entirely.
Human exceptionalism does not refer to mere biology, but rather to the dramatic and unbridgeablemoral differences between us and every other species—differences so vast that to point to out rudimentary similarities is akin to equating a hill with Pike’s Peak.
Take the hawk as one example. These magnificent birds—only humans, I hasten to point out, can recognize their magnificence—have exceptional vision that we can only now duplicate with technology. But their remarkable eyesight is merely biological—akin to, say, the opposable thumbs of hominids. Just as our thumb structure is irrelevant to our moral value, so too is the plethora of morally neutral biological differences among species.
De Waal, as is common in articles of this kind, sniffs that “the premise of human exceptionalism is rooted in religion.” That is at least a partial misdirection. Human exceptionalism need not depend on faith in God or the existence of a soul or life’s continuity beyond the grave. Whether our unique and morally relevant characteristics came to be through blind evolution or from the mind of an omnipotent Creator, our unique importance is supported by a rational examination of the cogent differences between humans and all other life forms.
What other species in the known history of the universe has attained the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has transcended the tooth-and-claw world of naked natural selection to the point that, at least to some degree, we now control nature instead of it controlling us? What other species has built civilizations, recorded history, created art, made music, thought abstractly, communicated in language, envisioned and fabricated machinery, improved life through science and engineering, or explored the deeper truths found in philosophy and religion? What other species has marveled at a sunset? What other life form—ever—has experienced true freedom other than we?
The ongoing and concerted attempts to corrode human exceptionalism are profoundly subversive to the existing mores and values of our free society. De Waal recognizes the game that is afoot:
One reason this whole debate is as heated as it is relates to its moral implications. When our ancestors moved from hunting to farming, they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature. In order to justify how they treated other species, they had to play down their intelligence and deny them a soul. It is impossible to reverse this trend without raising questions about human attitudes and practices. We can see this process underway in the halting of biomedical research on chimpanzees and the opposition to the use of killer whales for entertainment.
It is ironic that in the cause of destroying human exceptionalism—and indeed, after dismissing the principle as an obsolete relic of religion—de Waal embraces animal ensoulment. Moreover, he seems to forget that the changing standards of humane care of animals that he lauds have come about precisely because we—unlike them—are exceptionally possessed of consciences.
Those seeking to discredit human exceptionalism think that if we would only see ourselves as unexceptional, we would embrace our kinship with all living things and be moved to act more benevolently toward animals and the natural world. I believe the opposite is true. If we ever come to believe we are not the special species that is both endowed with the highest moral value (sanctity/equality of life) and concomitantly possessed of sacred duties of care and love toward each other and the planet, then that is precisely how we will act—not only to the detriment of our own thriving but of the rest of life on earth.